Tackling sports law

The area of sports law is becoming increasingly 'sexy' and looks about to boom. As Chris Fogarty reports, a wide range of firms and lawyers are set to benefit.

Late last year about 30 lawyers got together at Coutts, one of the world's most prestigious banks, to talk sport.

The Queen's banker was sponsoring a meeting of the newly formed Bar Sports Law Group, and while the lawyers attending were not there to discuss the merits of the 4-4-2 system, sporting figures were certainly on their minds.

“Let's admit it, we wouldn't be here unless we thought we could make money,” one barrister candidly admitted.

Coutts may have given the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, a multi-million pound overdraft but, that aside, it knows a sure-fire winner when it sees one.

And sports law is a winner.

In the words of one solicitor it is “sexy”, with firms now tumbling over each other to set up dedicated departments.

“I think professional sport is now very high profile. There are large amounts of money at stake – it will be a growth area for lawyers,” says Denton Hall partner Adrian Barr-Smith, one of the most highly rated sports lawyers in the UK.

Sport now accounts for 3 per cent of worldwide trade, and corporations are scrambling to sign up sporting sponsorship deals of up to £20m.

John Beagley, a partner at London firm Rosling King, says the end of amateurism in sports like rugby, an injection of National Lottery funds into smaller sports, along with the rampant commercialism in football, has helped fuel the legal boom.

“As sport increases [its commercialism] under the influence of Sky TV, the law will follow,” says Beagley.

In fact far from following, the law is occasionally leading the pack, with firms using their brains as well as their marketing brawn to capture work.

Rosling King has just launched Sports Elite, a multidisciplinary insurance package which covers legal expenses and accountancy advice for sports people.

The practice, in association with insurer Integro and accountancy firm Moore Stephens, offers players (for fees ranging from £50 to £1,000) a package of legal expenses insurance and completion of tax returns, plus optional extras such as careers advice.

In another initiative, City firm SJ Berwin & Co has teamed up with top selling Rugby World magazine to produce a players' contracts guide.

Yet the players themselves, particularly in newly professional sports like rugby union, are not always receptive to legal marketing efforts.

“Players think that lawyers are an unnecessary expense,” says SJ Berwin trainee Sam Rush, who has played on the wing for the England under-21 rugby team and Saracens.

Rush says that only now are rugby players waking up to the fact that their contracts which promised thousands of pounds may in reality produce only hundreds.

Yet if there is confusion among many sports people as to why they need a lawyer, there is also uncertainty within the profession as to what exactly sports law is and what it is that sports lawyers do.

As Jonathan Metliss, head of SJ Berwin Sports Business Group, explains: “There is no such thing as sports law. What we do is the business of sport.”

City firms like SJ Berwin mostly carry out the commercial business of sport, representing big football clubs or merchandisers, while other, smaller specialist firms such as Townleys and Farrar & Co also act for “rights holders”.

Outside of London, football clubs in particular choose to have close relationships with law firms. Irwin Mitchell, for example, acts for Sheffield Wednesday, with the firm's managing partner Howard Culley also sitting on the board of the premier League football club. That has left the field open for smaller regional firms to represent individual sports people.

“There definitely is a distinct market from the players' representative side of things,” explains Andrew MacMillan, an associate at Bristol firm Alsters.

Sports people often like the personal service and lower costs offered by smaller firms and, in turn, they can be lucrative clients.

“If you've got five or six players and you are advising them, it is a full-time job, these days,” says MacMillan. However, he warns that solicitors need to be flexible in dealing with sports people, who are often shy of billable hours.

Alsters has often worked on a conditional or contingency fee basis in contract disputes and tries to build a relationship with sports people throughout their careers rather than focusing on one-off jobs.

Some solicitors in the sporting field now speculate that sports lawyers will increasingly follow the US trend and become fully fledged agents.

Just one talented client, such as football star Paul Gascoigne, can provide a lawyer like Mel Stein with a workload that steps outside the strict boundaries of the law and into the media and marketing arena.

Lawyers are also taking a lead in sports administration. For example, Peter Leaver QC is chief executive of the football Premier League and Vernon Pugh QC chairs the International Rugby Board.

Barrister Edward Grayson, a founding member of the British Association of Sports and the Law in 1993 , says the development of a specialist sports chambers is also a possibility.

Grayson, whose 76-page booklet on sports law (first published in 1978) has turned into a 526-page tome entitled Sport and the Law, contends lawyers have come full circle.

They were involved in the harmonisation of the rules that set up the Football Association in 1863 and the Rugby Football Union in 1871.

Now they are back due to sport's “incapacity to regulate itself” and players' attitudes to injury shifting from “bad luck old boy” to “see you in court”, according to Grayson.

While cases which have seen rugby player Ben Smolden and Chelsea footballer Paul Elliott bring personal injury actions are still rare, PI lawyers say they are set to grow.

Just six months ago, Russell Jones & Walker, a firm well known for its PI work, brought in commercial lawyer Fraser Reid from sports management group Advantage International to set up a wide-ranging sports law department.

Reid says that while the courts have traditionally been reluctant to interfere in the dealings between players and administrators, the amount of money now at stake means this attitude is changing.

So is sports law an irresistible force which no firm can afford to ignore?

Reid for one maintains that some firms will get their fingers burnt in the rush to set up sports departments. Empathy with the sport rather than spotting its potential to boost your turnover is the key, he says. “If you're representing a squash player he will appreciate it more if you know how the sport is run.”

Farrer & Co partner Karena Vleck, so far one of the few woman to shine in sporting law, goes further, openly questioning how big the boom in sports law really is. “I think some firms are over-hyping it,” she says.

There is a real danger that it may backfire on the public image of lawyers and seriously singe the feathers of the golden goose.

When the Smolden case was concluded, there was concern among sports writers that its implications could extend liability for injury to other referees involved in high-risk sports.

Further, when Field Fisher Waterhouse partner Nick Jones successfully challenged the Welsh Rugby Union's decision to suspend former international lock Mark Jones last year, there was a feeling among spectators and the press that lawyers were coming off the bench and intruding on the field of play.

But Denton Hall's Barr says lawyers are happy to remain on the sidelines. “I don't think it's true to say the lawyers will run the sport or ruin it,” he says. “It's just a factor of scale. If you run a corner shop you don't need much legal protection. If it's Marks & Spencer you do.”

And there is scope for lawyers to turn into the unlikeliest of sporting heroes.

In 1995, the New Zealand Rugby Football Union got barrister and former All Blacks captain Jock Hobbs to lure top players such as Jonah Lomu to sign contracts with it rather than joining a Packer-style rugby circus known as the World Rugby Corporation.

The WRC venture collapsed, Hobbs was hailed as the man who saved the All Blacks, became a national hero and was included on the Queen's Birthday Honours List.

Is it a coincidence that shortly afterwards the public approval ratings for the legal profession shot up down under?